print’s not dead

water treatment as transitional infrastructure and site legacy.

excerpts from a report I prepared for Portland Metro while they pursued the purchase of Blue Heron Paper Mill following the company’s bankruptcy:

Willamette Falls is perhaps the most culturally significant landscape in Oregon, providing the fundamental infrastructure for Native American settlement, and later, pioneer industry.  The difference in river gradient not only trapped fish, timber and river traffic but was essential for powering mills of the period.

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Water power was the dominant technology for industry of the previous millenia, and thus remained the basis for pioneer industry in the western frontier.  Constructed channels, called “tailraces,” diverted water from the Willamette through turbines to power Oregon City’s industrial waterfront, and carried effluent back out to the river.  The oldest part of the city was eventually consumed by paper production, partly due to the regional abundance of water and timber, but also following the advent of chemical pulping which allowed wood to be converted into paper.

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Although completely covered, their turbines eventually replaced by electric power, the tailraces continued to directly discharge process water containing sulfites, VOC’s, waste fiber, and during bleaching operations, dioxins and other COC’s.  Stormwater containing PCB’s, PAH’s and TAL metals (principally from galvanized piping) also funneled through these subterranean canals.

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Most of the contaminants remain bound to sediment and are washed downriver because this portion of the Willamette has such a strong current.  While this bodes well for the rocky site, the Mill was a likely contributor of contamination to the Portland Harbor Superfund Study Area, where inter-tidal forces slow the river, causing sediment to settle, and the contaminants to work their way back up the food chain.

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By the early 60’s, Publisher Paper’s (the mill title at the time) become a poster child for the terrible state of the Willamette River and eventually invested in an extensive water treatment system which pumped all tailrace water to a clarifier for flocculation and then to a large lagoon on the opposite side of the river for further settling.  Because the entire site is essentially a deck lifted on concrete piers, large storms would still overwhelm this system and a 2 million gallon “spill control tunnel” was constructed in 1992 to provide additional storage.

Blue Heron

Unfortunately, as the mill transitioned to become almost exclusively a recycling operation, its fate became sealed.  Blue Heron’s closure is indicative of a larger national trend, mainly due to Chinese paper mill competition for post-consumer waste which can be shipped freely across the Pacific on otherwise empty barges.

Tailrace 2 Outfall

tailrace outfall


intake lagoon


clarifier and grinder (behind)

Falls View Point Panorama

willamette falls viewpoint

While few existing buildings are perceived as having architectural value, the site is nevertheless a powerful example of the industrial sublime.  In many cases, the mill is literally embedded into the landscape, inseparable from the identity of Willamette Falls; its complete removal will not usher a return to nature but only leave behind voids.

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This proposal suggests utilizing the existing and operational water treatment system as a transitional infrastructure to decontaminate the site during the deconstruction of the mill.  Sediment (and associated contaminants) remain trapped in the tailraces until being dredged through the pump control stations to the clarifier.  After flocculation removes the finest particles, the replumbed clarifier then sends water to the on-site treatment plant for additional screening at which point it could be discharged directly to the river, or to the city sewer system.

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Following adequate decontamination, the system could then be converted to a district wide living machine, harvesting all storm and grey water for reuse.  By maintaining the water treatment infrastructure as site legacy along with the structures and ruins identified as having historic value, the tailraces remain integral to human occupation of the Willamette Falls, and our recent industrial history remains present.

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